One of Storyline’s most important structures for life change / spiritual formation / following Jesus is a Formation Group. These are gender specific groups of 2-3 people who journey together on a weekly basis for the sake of listening to God and to each other.
Over the last 3-4 years, I’ve been on quite the journey regarding this discipleship structure. When I worked with Christ Journey Church, we experimented with Greg Ogden’s Discipleship Essentials. It bore fruit, as demonstrated by comments on a previous post, but was too head-heavy and hard to reproduce.
When we started Storyline, we began using Neil Cole’s template for Life Transformation Groups. He’s written a book about his approach called Search and Rescue. I’ve very much enjoyed Cole’s approach, especially the inherent reproducibility, high dose of Scripture reading, focus on mission, and patterns for confession of brokenness. My only qualm was that the language of his template was “too evangelical” and foreign to the language we used within the Storyline Community – terms like “Strategic Prayer Focus”, and an overwhelming focus on mission as it pertained to people’s souls, to the neglect of more holistic expressions of mission like working for justice.
It wasn’t until I began experimenting with Church of Two this spring that another point of dissonance with Cole emerged: the lack of a contemplative element. Granted, Cole uses the language of listening to God, particularly through reading long sections of Scripture, but he offered little help in how one actually goes about trying to hear something. Church of Two, however, builds its entire existence around the practice of listening. After finding some life in it ourselves, we decided that Storyline’s Formation Groups would benefit from that same focus on listening.
At this point we were faced with a decision: do we transition to Church of Two or do we build a hybrid version that draws out the best of both Cole’s Life Transformation Groups and Church of Two? At first, I didn’t think such a hybrid was possible, particularly because the two represent fundamentally different paradigms for discipleship. But at the end of the day, we decided for the hybrid because of shortcomings we perceived with Church of Two – the principal shortcoming being that it didn’t give adequate attention to the role of Scripture in the formation of disciples.
Church of Two‘s approach to Scripture amounts to reading as much or as little as one senses God is leading her to read. Personally, I read much less Scripture in my Church of Two experiences than with any other approach with which I’ve experimented (either contemplatively, via Lectio Divina, or in sheer volume, as with Cole’s approach). Other friends of mine in Church of Two have admitted to similar experiences. I actually read almost no Scripture in Church of Two groups – which is fine, I suppose, because I’ve been reading and studying Scripture for many years.
But what about newcomers to the story? If Scripture is the normative story of God’s work in the world, how else are those who are new to the faith to be formed by the story unless they are spending time listening to it (i.e., by reading Scripture)?
I know that not everyone’s experience with Church of Two regarding Scripture mirrors my own in this regard. I anticipate proponents of Church of Two reiterating: if people are listening to God, God will tell them how much Scripture they need to read. The same logic follows for other big staples in the diet of a Jesus-follower like confession of brokenness and participation in mission.
All this leads to my fundamental hesitation about Church of Two, best expressed in a comment I made on a previous post:
Here’s a hesitation I have about assuming that confession, Bible reading, and participation in mission will flow out of CO2s: what if it doesn’t? The CO2 model seems to have a pretty high view of humanity: that if we listen, we’ll hear from God…and have the courage and faith to respond accordingly. How do we factor in our brokenness into the equation? I’ve sensed in my own participation, for instance, the desire to resist confession because I didn’t want to share it. I was resisting God, really. And because there was no explicit accountability mechanism to hold my feet to the fire, I just let it slide. I guess I’m concerned about the way my own brokenness has the potential to hijack the experience. None of this is to say that human brokenness cannot hijack Neil Cole’s LTGs – it certainly can. But there’s something in me that feels good knowing that people will constantly be attentive to Scripture, confession and mission because they’ve given others the permission to support them in that.
I’m concerned that unless checks and balances are put in place, “This is what I heard from God…” could potentially function as an unquestioned, unchallenged expression of human brokenness – even unwittingly. It seems very difficult to argue with such a statement otherwise. One check/balance is relationships in which I submit to other people who are listening to God/God’s story. The work of discernment (and the tentativeness assumed therein) is another. But, in the end, both of these elements gain their footing by standing on Scripture. Scripture is the normative check/balance, because followers of Jesus really don’t know if they’ve heard from God unless it jives with the story of God in Scripture.
Certainly Scripture can be, and has been, hijacked by human brokenness as well. It’s a risk we will always face as finite humans. But if Scripture is, in fact, the normative story, we have no choice but to face it.
Let me be clear: none of this is to say I’ve sensed that my friends in Church of Two have listening to God in such a way that it was hijacked by their brokenness; it’s only to say that I sense it’s a very real danger of the approach.
For Storyline, the result of this process and conversation (for now) is a beta version of Storyline’s Formation Groups template. Those of you who know Neil Cole’s work will see the influence of his work in the template. Those of you who know Church of Two will see its influence as well.
This template is not offered as the ‘answer’ by any means. It’s very contextual. It’s far from perfect. It’s merely Storyline’s small contribution to this particular structure of discipleship after experimenting with many different approaches.
I’d love for anyone to take a look at it – better yet, give it a test run with a group of friends – then give us some feedback on how we might make the next version better. We’re testing it currently in the Storyline Community, too – so this request is also aimed for you Storyliners out there!
Just click on the image below to download a PDF of the template.
Hi Charles…great post. I appreciate your thoughtful exploration and experimentation with this. We’ve also found CO2 to be a very powerful discipline…in many ways revolutionary for us. However, we also share some concerns about it being devoid of scripture. Those whom I know that practice this often already bring a strong foundation in scripture to the table…and that foundation does indeed shape our hearts and minds when we seek to listen to God. JoEtta and I have been reading a book by Dallas Willard entitled “Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God” and have found it to provide us with some good theological underpinnings for the idea “hearing God’s voice” and integrating a practice of listening into a soil that is nourished by the written Word.
Thanks Charles for putting this together! I too have been wrestling with the pros and cons of both LTGs and CO2s for the past two years in our church network in Chicago. We’ve been offering both models to our house churches and calling them “Micro” communities. With your permission, we may pass this model around too for folks interested in developing deep Micro level formation in Christ.
We love what you’re doing, and pray for you!
Absolutely. Share away. Thanks, Mark. Blessings to you.